What Happens When You Put a Bounty on Houseflies?

(Photo: Dan4th Nicholas)

Our recent podcast “The Cobra Effect” continues to draw listener/reader mail, with further examples of bounties-gone-wrong. This one, from Dan Banks in Indiana, may be my favorite:

How about a failed bounty on houseflies?

I run a group home for criminal youth.  They are generally manipulative and not too smart.  We have a “point” system where they do work to earn points that they can spend on various tangibles and intangibles.  It’s a great system as we print all the “currency” we want and exchange it for labor.

One summer we seemed to always have houseflies in the home.  A frustrated staff offered 5 points for every fly carcass that was brought in and handed out flyswatters to the kids.

Our residents killed the flies, then ditched the flyswatters and started gathering dead flies from window sills.  Then they started pushing out the appliances to dig out the dead flies.  Being of the criminal nature they would overcount and try to slip in other insects.  After exhausting the dead fly supply at the home, they started bringing them in from the outside.  When taken to a restaurant, they would go around digging for dead flies.

So the program ended.

Positive externality:

  • We did rid the home of lots of dead bugs.

Negative externalities:

  • We also “paid” to clean a lot of other people’s bugs.
  • The kids would do no other work.  Why spend an hour in the hot sun mowing the yard when you can simply collect dead flies?

Effect on the living housefly problem:

  • Nil — the kids would leave the doors and windows open to lure in the valuable flies.

I enjoy your work.  It inspires me to try all kinds of little experiments.  I am in a unique situation as I can control the “money supply” and price fix every asset in my closed economy.  Jealous?

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  1. Nat says:

    You might want to rethink your impressions of the kids you work with. You run a program where you’re in charge of these kids. They depend on you for stability and support as they grow up under terrible circumstances. The rest of society depends on you to graduate these kids having given then some sort of rehabilitative effect.

    Yet you characterize them as “not too smart” and “of the criminal nature.” But this description is belied by your own story of their exploiting inefficiencies in the market you set up and maximizing their income. Sounds pretty smart to me.

    More importantly, I question the philosophy you bring to running your program. I think it’s pretty well established that kids respond to the expectations that their educators and role models set for them. Are you telling your students to their faces that they’re criminals by nature? Are you telling them that they’re dumb? Do your policies and your attitude convey this message nonverbally? Are you reinforcing every negative expectation that people have been placing on them for their whole lives? How exactly is taking this attitude toward your kids fulfilling a mission of helping these kids, who need help and support more than any other kids, to get their lives back on track?

    In my experience, kids who get in trouble when they’re young are just as smart and have just as much potential as any other kids (as evidenced by these kids’ gaming the housefly market). They have crappy home lives and have adults in their lives, like you, who never hold them to a higher standard and never teach them how to have more productive lives.

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  2. Paul in VA says:

    Wow. FWIW I think Dan is getting too rough a time from the commentators here. He seems like a bright guy who has been able to maintain a good attitude while working in a setting that is very challenging.

    It seems to me there are a lot of do-gooder opinions being thrown about by people who have NOT chosen difficult, low paying work like Dan has. Seems very typical, particularly of liberals. “The world should be wonderful for everybody, but I’m not lifting a finger to make it that way”.

    I think most people who work at places like this, or in mental health institutions, etc.. develop much WORSE attitudes than Dan displays here. If you think these places are full of people like Anne Sullivan (Hellen Keller’s teacher) then you are either uninformed or sorely delusional.

    It seems Dan’s role is somewhat between prison guard, teacher, and guidance counsellor. So who wants a job application… (…crickets…)

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  3. Gkm says:

    Obviously it’s not a “closed” economy because there is interaction with external sources ie imports. This also highlights that regulated (fixed in this case) versus market prices is as much to blame for unintended consequences as anything.

    The design is also flawed for the program. It should be that everyone gets 5 points to start and then everyone losses a point for each live fly seen in the residence. I don’t think I need to explain the logic of this approach do I ?

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  4. Don says:

    Wow…

    The holier-than-thou posts here are amazing. Standing on their cyber soapboxes, espousing how much better they are than Mr. Banks…all while having no idea what Mr. Banks goes through on a day to day basis.

    Newsflash: He says he runs a group home for criminal youth. Guess what? I’ll bet you 50 flies and a dung beetle that the youts (what’s a yout?) in his .5 house are there because a court somewhere in the Hoosier state found each and every one of them guilty of…wait for it….COMMITING A CRIME. That makes them CRIMINALS.

    If, during your arduous journey through life you are subjected to “terrible circumstances,” lack “stability” and “support,” and end up hitting your wife, guess what again? YOU’RE A WIFE BEATER. These aren’t opinions…they’re facts. What caused you to become a wife beater doesn’t negate the fact that you are one.

    As far as his comment regarding the delinquents’ smarts: well, he’s around them potentially 24/7 and would have a darn better idea of their intelligence than anyone here on this board. Very arrogant of those here that think they know better than Dan-O here.

    And you guys think that gaming this very simple system is a sign of intelligence? Really? You guys have a very low standard of intelligence then. If you think about it it’s really not that hard to come up with schemes to acquire dead flies. And if you’re honest about it, being able to jimmy a cheesy $2 luggage padlock doesn’t make you a master locksmith. Was it brilliant for some hunters to score some pig ears at slaughter houses in Missouri (to collect the bounty offered by Fort Lost-in-the-Woods for pigs only killed inside the fort)…or was it criminal?

    So please, Vanessa, Bill, and Gnat (sorry, don’t mean to be…uh…juvenile but rather punny given the topic) get off your high horseses and get real. If you really believe and PRACTICE the stuff that you pretend to believe you guys wouldn’t have stated your positions in such an arrogant (Gnat), demeaning (Bill), or thin-skinned (Vanessa) way.

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  5. Wickersham's Conscience says:

    The great Terry Pratchett has a story on point.

    The city of Anhk-Morpork was plagued with rats. It offered a bounty on rat tails. For a while, the bounty worked, and there was a gradual decline in the number of rat tails submitted for the bounty. Then the number of rat tails surged again.

    Asked what to do, Lord Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, said, “Tax the rat ranches.”

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  6. Ross says:

    I think this is a perfect example of a trap (no pun intended) many organizations fall into: a knee-jerk decision to treat the visible symptom of a problem rather than the root cause. I’m assuming the flies didn’t breed inside the house, so the root of the problem was flies entering the house. The incentive should have been designed around keeping the flies out.

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  7. Zach Mitchell says:

    This could have worked with some regulation. Have them acquire a license to hunt the flies. Don’t just give them the swatters, earn them or use points to buy them. Fluctuate the price. lower it, for sure. The incentive for the flies was obviously too high when compared to the other chores.

    “Effect on the living housefly problem:

    Nil — the kids would leave the doors and windows open to lure in the valuable flies.”

    Screens. Then again, this might have been the solution all along.

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  8. Dan Banks (author) says:

    1. I have spent the last 18 years of my life working with these kids. We live together and my relationship with them is one of caring. Although my writing style may not reflect this, any thoughts to the contrary are erroneous.

    2. Not only most of these kids not very smart, they are generally under-educated as well. This is a problem and something we try to help them with. It is unfortunate, but it is a statistical fact among the criminal population, both youth and adult.

    3. The true beauty of markets and incentives is that they function very efficiently. They are not dependent upon people being smart enough to understand them. If you don’t believe me, check out “Freakonomics” by Levit and Dubner, there are plenty of examples in their text.

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